Tomato Girl, Jane Pupek’s debut novel, drips darkness from its opening pages. That we are in for something twisted is immediately clear, despite our narrator innocuously remarking that “Jars line my cellar shelves. Some are filled with fists of yellow-veined tomatoes. Others hold small onions and chopped leeks, white pearls floating in an opaque sea.” This almost mundane description takes a much darker turn as the narrator continues:
Sometimes the light falls on a jar of boiled quail or the slick, dark meat of a rabbit. There are unexpected moments when I see the slit of an infant’s mouth, or the curl of a tiny fist behind the glass, and I run up the steps, back into the open light of sky. I gasp for air and tell myself the past is a distant thing, no longer able to reach me or hurt me. And yet, at times, it seems the past will always send its long thin fingers toward me, reminding me of all I want to forget.
The image of an infant captured behind glass passes almost before we realize it, but we can’t avoid the knowledge that our narrator is about to recount a time of unbelievable pain and darkness. True, the prologue makes it clear that she has survived the past, but knowing the past can no longer harm her doesn’t lessen our shock when we learn the details.
Tomato Girl is our narrator’s attempt to make sense of her childhood, to tell what she remembers in an effort to let it all go. Tired of “carrying so many dark and broken things inside,” Ellie refuses to be weighed down any longer. The result is a moving, albeit troubling story, the effect of which is quite similar to a car crash or a celebrity trainwreck: We are deeply disturbed by the sight, yet cannot look away.
The first chapter begins as 11-year-old Ellie Sanders cares for her mother after her father has gone. Such a task would be difficult for anyone that age; however, Ellie’s situation is far from normal. Her mother has “moods,” and behaves like “a lily caught in a hurricane,” which is a nice way of saying she’s batshit crazy. She doesn’t bathe, picks arguments with vendors at the market, and clutches Baby Tom, the infant she miscarried and keeps in a formaldehyde-filled jar. Meanwhile, her father, Rupert, has run off with the tomato girl, a teenager who sells tomatoes in his general store.
Ellie tells us of her plight before returning us to the events that lead to the family’s breakdown. Among these scenes are Ellie’s memory of the first few times she encountered her father with Tess, and these moments especially highlight the perfect balance between Ellie’s naïveté and the reader’s more sophisticated eyes. We see what Ellie does not see, what she refuses to admit to herself. What Ellie takes for - what she insists is - just friendship, we know to be far, far more.
When Ellie’s mother suffers a fall and ends up in the hospital, Ellie’s father takes the opportunity to move Tess right on in, ostensibly to help around the house. We know where this is headed long before Ellie, and it isn’t long before Rupert, frustrated by a broken home and his inability to fix it, leaves with Tess.
Not surprisingly, Ellie, left alone with an unstable mother nursing a jarred fetus, soon meets with disaster. While such disaster doesn’t come as a surprise, it never arrives quite as one might anticipate. Even better, Pupek is able to maintain suspense until the final blow is revealed.
In many ways, Tomato Girl is a novel of change, and not just for Ellie. While it’s obvious that Tomato Girl will chronicle Ellie’s movement toward adulthood, the other characters experience change far more fascinating. Rupert’s character is especially interesting; he begins the novel as a symbol of hope, representing to Ellie all that will make her world right. As we journey further into Ellie’s story, however, he changes from father-knight to lovesick fool to outright coward. Tess, one of the more complex characters, is Lolita-esque in her psychology, moving from siren to little-girl lost. Even Julia, Ellie’s mother, takes greater depth over the course of the novel. Just enough insight into her illness is given to maintain the elusiveness so central to her character.
In all, Tomato Girl is an admirable first novel that deftly captures the voice and reason of an 11-year-old girl facing catastrophe. The pacing is just right, and the reader has no time to get bored with the tale. While she doesn’t offer any profundities about the nature of sanity, loss, or isolation, Pupek has penned a quick, engrossing read that is the perfect way to usher in the somber mood of fall.
Jennifer McKeown reads way too much and blogs about her experiences over at Bibliolatry.The One About the Miscarried Baby in the Formaldehyde-Filled Jar
Books | September 24, 2008 | Comments ()